Re-Imagining the Law Firm Women’s Initiative

Fifty-plus years after the enactment of the Equal Pay Act and following decades of gender equality programs in the workplace, what is the role for women’s initiatives in our industry? Are they still relevant? Still necessary?

Recent news coverage seems to indicate the answer is a resounding “Yes!” We are long past—thankfully!—the shoulder-padded power suits and floppy bow-tie blouses of the 1980s and the many institutionalized obstacles that women battled at that time. But even “leaning in” hasn’t resulted in as much progress as many would like to see.

Patricia Arquette, after her much-publicized remarks during her Oscar acceptance speech, may have said it best. Elaborating on her comments in the Oscar press room, she noted: “The truth is, even if it sort of feels as if there are equal rights in America, right under the surface there are huge issues that are at play that really do affect women.” And they affect women attorneys. We still hear stories of women attorneys being admonished for distracting judges by “making inappropriate wardrobe choices” and being warned by colleagues not to “giggle” in business meetings. Those tales are disheartening, given all the obstacles women attorneys have overcome. While women have made significant professional strides, evidently progress still must be made.

The “Old Girls” Club

So what’s a women’s initiative to do in this environment? Why, reinvent itself, of course! Or, at minimum, evolve into Women’s Initiative 2.0.

As women’s roles and challenges in the workplace have changed, women’s initiatives need to develop more sophisticated and varied objectives and programming. At the core of many of the original women’s initiatives in the legal industry was a desire to create an internal support system for women lawyers. Now, however, women’s initiatives have much broader and more divergent mandates from their leaders.

At Fox Rothschild, our women’s initiative leadership has identified key areas to address, establishing subcommittees for leadership, connectivity, business development and policy as well as an associates steering committee to ensure concerns and issues for that group of women attorneys are addressed. Each subcommittee chair or co-chairs is tasked with monitoring relevant trends, both internal and external, and bringing relevant information to women attorneys and firm management.

Connecting Still Key

While no longer a sole focus, internal networking for women attorneys remains a priority. Creating and fostering a strong, supportive and solid network for professional women attorneys across a firm fuels business development success, as well as retention and recruiting efforts. Mentoring programs leverage multigenerational perspectives and experiences to the benefit of the firm as a whole. Consistent outreach to, and inclusion of, women attorneys who join as laterals contributes to successful institutional relationships with those laterals and quicker assimilation and integration of women attorneys who join the firm.

Fox’s Connectivity Subcommittee helps women attorneys build relationships across geographies, practices and generations. Regular meetings help ensure that communication of priorities, programs and important news consistently occur and bolster internal networking. Special attention is devoted to welcoming and integrating new laterals so that they quickly develop an internal network across offices.

Paving the Path to Leadership

At the core of many early women’s initiatives was the desire for expanded access to partnership and other leadership opportunities. Clearly outlining a path to firm leadership and career success remains a priority with women’s initiatives, and Fox Rothschild is no different. In fact, two of our initiative’s subcommittees are devoted to this objective.

Our leadership subcommittee identifies opportunities for women attorneys to develop the skill sets that will bolster their management abilities. It also helps to ensure that women attorneys are aware of firm leadership opportunities, which has resulted in more women at Fox serving on the firm’s executive committee—its governing body—as well as leading the firm’s litigation, labor and employment, and financial restructuring and bankruptcy departments. Women attorneys at Fox are also helping to manage the firm as office managing partners and leaders of more than 20 practice groups.

While the leadership subcommittee employs a tactical approach, the policy subcommittee has its eye on firm strategy. The policy subcommittee works to establish and foster firm policies to retain and promote qualified women attorneys of all backgrounds to help build an inclusive and diverse working environment. It also seeks to ensure increased flexibility for women attorneys regarding how work gets done and how careers are developed.

Beyond Firm Doors

Increasingly, law firm women’s initiatives have developed externally focused programming aimed at fostering business development, networking and professional development. At Fox, the business development subcommittee understands the inherent value of women working their networks in a way that speaks to other female professionals who have the power to make decisions about legal purchasing. The subcommittee identifies and creates opportunities for collaboration and support to deepen existing client relationships, foster business networking and increase business development among its women attorneys.

Programming under our women’s initiative umbrella is broad and varied. Generally, however, our events combine substantive, social and often charitable elements to appeal to a solid cross-section of participants. With 20 offices across the country and nearly 50 practice areas, we are a diverse firm that serves a range of clients in a variety of industries. “One size fits all” is not a Fox motto, and we tailor our programs to our clients and markets.

As women’s programming evolves, law firms are seeking increasingly sophisticated speakers and exploring a diverse range of topics. In the past few years, Fox has had significant positive feedback on several events:

“Transform in Ten” focused on what often over-scheduled working women “learn in 10 minutes to transform their lives.” This summer-themed event featured three speakers – each of whom spoke for 10 minutes on the topics of “Productivity and Time Management Tips,” “Take the ‘Work’ Out of Networking” and “Insight Into Communication Styles.”

Speakers were Melissa Gasnick Cloeter, founder and president of Own It Ventures, a business network for women entrepreneurs, and co-founder of Entrepreneur Exposé, a conference focused on business needs of women entrepreneurs in New Jersey; Jamie Mulholland, founder of Mulholland Marketing, which provides event management, media relations and marketing programs for mid-sized businesses; and Barbara J. Berson, president of SOS Organizational Services, a personal productivity training company serving individual and corporate clients.

In a nutshell, the event provided concrete takeaways from sophisticated presenters and closed with a Boardwalk-themed networking reception.

“Power of the Purse” is a manual that our guest speaker Roberta D. Liebenberg, who at the time chaired the ABA Commission on Women in the Professional and the Task Force on Gender Equity, presented to attendees at another Fox event. Ms. Liebenberg offered a candid look at the challenges facing women in the workplace, including a discussion on straightforward approaches to closing the gender gap in compensation at all sizes and types of organizations.

“Executive Evolution: Redefining Your Personal and Professional Brand” featured esteemed veteran jewelry designer and firm friend Ann King Lagos, who co-founded and designed both the LAGOS brand and REALM Jewelry. At this event, Ms. Lagos shared insights on her evolution as a business founder and operator and how she managed the professional and personal challenges that arose. The firm paired the discussion with a networking reception and a discount on REALM jewelry for attendees, with a portion of the proceeds benefiting a domestic violence shelter.

The common themes of these events and Fox’s women’s initiative are empowerment, networking and business acumen. Women’s initiatives have graduated from addressing basic challenges to exploring, remedying, and surmounting complex issues that arise at all levels of seniority in women’s careers. It’s time to change the conversation in the courtroom, the boardroom and the Oscar press room, and Fox’s women’s initiative is leading the way.

About the Author

Lilley MaierTrish Lilley (215. 299.2003; tlilley@foxrothschild.com) is the chief marketing officer and Michelle Maier (215.299.2098; mmaier@foxrothschild.com) is the director of marketing communications at Fox Rothschild LLP. Pictured respectively.

 

 

(Image Credit: ShutterStock)

 

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